"The South Carolina Family Court nevertheless has imprisoned hundreds, and likely thousands, of indigent defendants for nonpayment of support without appointed counsel," the groups said in their friend-of-the-court brief.
"These defendants languish in modern-day debtors" prisons after patently unfair proceedings, many of which lack any factual findings," the brief added. "Often the courts do not even inquire into the defendant"s ability to pay their support obligation."
Those paragraphs come from a brief filed in the Supreme Court of South Carolina opposing that state's denial of legal counsel to indigent defendants in child support cases. Here's
an article about that (The Nerve
, 4/12/10). In other words, fathers who can't pay their child support because they don't have the money with which to do so also can't get an attorney to represent them to try to stay out of jail.
As I've said before, in other areas of the law, people can't be jailed for their own inability to pay a fine. That's an unconstitutional infringement on a liberty interest. Many people believe that debtor's prison died long ago, a victim of the commonsense understanding that, if one is in jail, one can't very well accumulate the money to pay what one owes.
But of course we do have debtor's prison in the United States, and it's exactly as nonsensical as it was 250 years ago. Putting fathers in jail because they can't pay child support accomplishes but one thing; it increases the amount owed, plus interest, for the time Dad's behind bars. Little Andy and Jenny don't see more money, they see less.
Well, it seems the State of South Carolina is one of five in the country that denies indigent parents who owe child support an attorney to represent them in their effort to stay out of jail. The others are Georgia, Florida, Maine and Ohio.
And as the brief says, there are likely hundreds or even thousands of parents (mostly fathers) who have fallen prey to the state's seemingly-never-ending search for more draconian punishments for the inability to pay. That's particularly brutal in this economy, the worst in over 70 years.
But now, this article
tells us that the United States Supreme Court has accepted the case of Turner vs. Price and the South Carolina Department of Social Services
that will test the constitutionality of South Carolina's law (The Nerve
Apparently the Palmetto State defends its unwillingness to provide an attorney to indigent parents in child support proceedings on the grounds that the hearing is civil, not criminal. That's a distinction without a difference. The simple, clear fact is that the state is attempting to take a parent's property (money) and liberty, and when it does so, it must comply with due process of law. That means providing competent counsel to people who don't have the means to hire one themselves.
It's astonishing how slowly courts and legislatures have moved to protect the rights of a single class of citizens - fathers in family courts, particularly in child support cases. The denial of counsel to fathers whom the state seeks to imprison is an obvious case in point, but there are many others like denial of occupational licenses, all of which frankly contradict the stated goal - support for children.
It's worth thinking about. Why do we reserve the most draconian penalties, the most blatant deprivations of constitutional rights for fathers? These are not isolated instances; we do it in many, many different areas of law. I've said it before; the most heinous mass murderer receives greater protection from the state than does the father who has done nothing worse than lose his job.
Think about it. And let's see what happens in Turner vs. Price
Thanks to Don for the heads-up.